Lori Anderson: Package holidays revisited

From the 1860s through to the 1930s and now, travellers really only want someone to smooth the way and take the strain out of organising a foreign trip. Picture: Getty Images
From the 1860s through to the 1930s and now, travellers really only want someone to smooth the way and take the strain out of organising a foreign trip. Picture: Getty Images
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IN THE early 1860s the most pressing question for Jemima Morrell, the affluent eldest daughter of a bank manager from Selby, was not what to wear but where to vacation.

As she wrote in her diary: “What an anxious question this annual holiday is now becoming! Everybody has been to Scotland, some of us had done the Land’s End, Ireland is not everybody’s choice, the International Exhibition had tired us all of London, Scarbro’ is only suitable for invalids and children, the Lake District done years ago, and Fleetwood is worse than Scarbro’ – where shall we go next?”

The man with the answer was a Baptist preacher and budding tour operator whose inaugural trip had been to successfully ferry 540 Temperance campaigners to a convention in Loughborough, but now he had his eye on a grander prize: continental Europe.

His name was Thomas Cook. On 26 June, 1863, Ms Morrell joined 130 fellow travellers on what was the first British package holiday to Europe, a fortnight of sightseeing in Paris, Geneva and the Alps in which all train tickets, hotel rooms and meals were included in the princely sum of £10.

Thomas Cook, who would also go on to develop “credit notes”, an early form of travellers cheques, had invented the fortnight’s holiday. As his adverts proclaimed: “Even delicate persons, may, with tolerable ease, reach the famed scenes of Geneva.”

Jemima Morrell could not, in any way, be described as a delicate person. While the majority of the party returned home after Paris and Geneva, Ms Morrell, in long petticoat, crinoline dress and tightly laced leather boots, was among the small group that stayed to hike among the high glaciers.

Gazing out over Lake Lucerne from the summit of Mount Rigi she later wrote in her diary: “The vastness of that mighty panorama was impressively sublime and in hushed silence we gazed on the serrated belt as daylight awoke on its three hundred miles of mountains, valleys, lakes and villages… That zone of blanched mountains sparkling like marble before a sky of clearest azure was more a heavenly than an earthly glory…”

The sun has, once again, come out for the package holiday. For 150 years after its creation and after many dark years when the sky was choked with only clouds and the taunting trails of planes owned by easyJet and Ryanair flying off with their newly poached customers, a chink of light has appeared on the horizon and is beaming back down on the travel agent and tour operator ever so grateful for the watery rays.

Until the early 1990s, the majority of holidays were booked in a manner that would have been familiar to Jemima Morrell, whose eye was caught by one of Thomas Cook’s “Guide to Cook’s Tours in France, Switzerland and Italy”. The appetite for sizzling sun was whetted just as soon as the Christmas pudding was digested as the holiday programmes began airing in the dark of January, brochures soon started thudding down on to mats and by Easter a destination, usually Spain, was identified. A Saturday morning trip to the travel agent sealed the deal with flights and hotels all booked up and the services of a tour rep at their service.

Then along came the internet democratising travel and stripping the tourist operators, those smiley sunny Sanhedrins, of their special powers. Distant hotels were no longer locked away in the tourist operators’ files but were now only a few mouse clicks away.

The arrival of easyJet in 1995 and the decision by Ryanair to make online booking available from 2000 opened up Europe to British holiday-makers who experimented first of all with a weekend away and then quickly became converts to organising their own flights, hotels and car hire. They could be their own smiley-faced tour operator and were happy to work for free if it meant a cheaper holiday and more money left over for clanking bags of duty free.

As Noel Josephides, director of Sunvil holidays, who will take over as the new chairman of the Association of British Travel Operators (ABTA), said earlier this week: “We were very worried that was the way the whole market would go, but it hasn’t.”

The numbers of people booking package holidays dropped sharply, a problem initially magnified by Britain’s recent recession, but what is curious is that over the last three years the package holiday has begun to fight back, but not without casualties.

Thomas Cook almost collapsed in 2011 with debts of £1.5 billion, resulting in 2,500 job losses and the closure of 195 of their travel agencies. Yet according to ABTA, 48 per cent of people in Britain booked a foreign package holiday in 2012, up from 42 per cent in 2011 and from 37 per cent in 2010.

There are a number of factors that have been blowing on the embers and rekindling the industry.

When the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano grounded all flights across Europe in 2010 those who had made their own way looked on enviously as the travel reps soothed the brows and re-booked rooms for their clients. Secondly, the continuing economic grind has made families forego the multiple mini-breaks so common during the golden years of cheap credit and instead seek even better value for their annual and sacrosanct fortnight in the 
sun.

The “all-inclusive” holiday has grown in popularity, particularly among the middle classes. Where in the past package holidays were short haul and budget, now they are increasingly involving medium to long haul flights with a destination of four and five star hotels offering infinity pools and gourmet dining.

Exclusivity has been the key to tour operators and travel agencies holding on to their place in the market as new resort hotels are signing exclusive contracts with specific agencies.

As Peter Frank Hausen, the chief executive of Thomas Cook in the UK and Europe said: “There is a real revolution in the public perception of the package holiday.”

A generation of tourists whose disposable income has taken a dent but whose horizons have been widened by those affluent years prior to 2008 are seeking the financial comfort of “all inclusive”.

Nicholas Batram, an analyst at Peel Hunt explained: “In times of uncertainty the package tour company comes into its own. There has been a lot of volatility and uncertainty in people’s lives, whether that be the economy or jobs. The whole point of a package holiday is that – in theory – someone takes out all the stress of it for you.”

In 1863 this meant that Thomas Cook ensured a supply of mules to carry one’s valise across the alps and to find an Anglican church in Switzerland in time for Sunday worship. Today, 150 years on, his successors in name are facilitating high end tours in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Yet one thing that has remained constant is the facility for casting derision on those who set out from these shores in search of sun and adventure.

As the Rev Francis Kilvert wrote 1870: “Of all noxious animals too the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist.”